Hi Concepts A Background in Art: Designing with Public Domain Images

April Anderton

How do digital kit designers get such great images and motifs for their work? Many of them are naturally talented illustrators--but many others rely on public domain images for their source material. While royalty-free images are readily available from such sources as Dover Publications, you can look a little farther afield to find unique source images for your own work.


In the United States, artwork by an artist at least 70 years ago is considered to be in the public domain. (For a complete rundown on copyright terms and expiration dates, see this chart from Cornell University.) In most cases, this artwork can be used freely in your own designs. Be sure to check the copyright status of each piece you plan to use. Remember that if you are not in the U.S., your local copyright laws will apply instead.

Though using public domain art is not an original idea in itself, you can give an existing artwork a bit of your own style and make it the basis of some great designs. Try one of these ideas:

  • Layer several pieces together
  • Change the original artwork's colors
  • Experiment with different blending modes
  • Crop the design into a new shape

earth rabbit by april anderton
materials "Bird," "Drink and Sing" paintings by Tang Yin + "Longevity" script by Cixi + JSA Lovechinese, Loveletter fonts + Photoshop (Adobe)

Here, I was inspired by the Chinese New Year holiday (Happy Year of the Ox!) to create a layout documenting my daughter Kelsey's Chinese zodiac symbol. I used two pieces of artwork dating from the Ming dynasty and paired them with a Chinese symbol written in an ancient script. I layered the artworks in the background and used only limited sections of each piece, giving the final design a unique contemporary look.

Ming Dynasty paintings by Tang Yin

By making your own backgrounds using public domain art, you can create a design that takes inspiration from the past while possessing the modern style and flair that only you can produce. Start your search for copyright-free artwork by using your favorite search engine to find sites that feature artwork in the public domain."

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